What Does a Forensic Anthropologist Do? - Job Descriptions, Duties & Daily Activities

Forensic anthropologists assist law enforcement through their specialized knowledge of human skeletal remains. Read all about the education requirements, salary, and duties of this exciting and impactful career. Schools offering Social Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Overview

Forensic anthropologists are scientists who perform analyses of human skeletal remains and apply their expertise to criminal investigations. They hold either a master's or PhD in biological or physical anthropology. Practicing forensic anthropologists are often certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, although certification is not a legal requirement of employment.

The chart below shows the education requirements, job duties, and salary of forensic anthropologists.

Degree Required Master's at minimum; PhD needed for some positions or advancement
Education Field of Study Biological or Physical Anthropology
Key Responsibilities Locate, recover, and examine human remains; reports findings to medical examiner, law enforcement, and court officials
Certification Optional, certification is available through the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists
Job Growth (2016-2016) 4% (for all anthropologists and archaeologists)*
Median Salary (2017) $62,280 (for all anthropologists and archaeologists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics

What Do Forensic Anthropologists Do?

Forensic anthropologists use a set of highly specialized skills to assist medical examiners and law enforcement in criminal cases. Their duties include assisting with the location and recovery of human remains, analyzing skeletal remains, and estimating the time since death. Their analysis allows them to construct a profile of the victim (sex, age, height, appearance) and identify traumatic injuries to the skeleton.

Forensic anthropologists may also assist forensic odontologists in the identification of an individual through the matching of dental records. If a case goes to trial, it may be necessary for the forensic anthropologist involved to testify in court on their findings as well.

What Should I Study?

A master's degree is typically required for entry-level positions in forensic anthropology. Most master's programs require applicants to have had an anthropology or archaeology major as an undergrad. However, some will accept another major, such as biology, as long as one has an anthropology minor. During their master's program, a student will typically take courses in anatomy, osteology, and biological anthropology as well as complete a thesis. Much of the instruction is hands-on and students will learn the proper methods for the respectful handling and analysis of human remains.

Some forensic anthropologist positions require one to have a PhD in forensic, biological, or physical anthropology. These programs typically take 3-7 years and include hands-on learning, independent research, and a dissertation.

What Is the Job Outlook?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) does not separate forensic anthropologists from anthropologists and archaeologists. For anthropologists and archaeologists there is an expected 4% growth between 2016 and 2026 which is slower than the national average. The growth of 4% represents an increase of only 300 jobs. Since jobs in this field are somewhat rare, many forensic anthropologists also work as college or university professors.

How Much Might I Earn?

The median annual salary for anthropologists and archaeologists was $62,280 as of May 2017, according to the BLS. The highest 10% of earners brought home in excess of $99,580 and the lowest 10% received less than $36,390. The wages also vary based on the industry in which they work - for instance, those working in the federal government had a median salary of $76,960 while those who work in research and development in the social science and humanities earned $55,600.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Forensic pathologists also work with human remains, however, they need a medical degree and their practice is not limited to the analysis of skeletal and decayed remains and. Additionally, forensic pathologists are responsible for determining the cause of death not only of those who died as a result of a crime but also of those who died suddenly or unexpectedly.

Another related field is that of an archaeologist. These scientists reconstruct past human lifeways through the analysis of artifacts discovered during excavation. Archaeologists typically are not involved in criminal investigations though there is a subspecialty known as forensic archaeology which utilizes archaeological techniques in the recovery and analysis of evidence.

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